Don't sleep on these teams

5-on-5: Which teams are expected to come on strong after a subpar start?

Updated: January 30, 2012, 5:43 PM ET
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network

Duncan-Nowitzki-PierceUS PresswireIt wouldn't be wise to count out veteran teams like Duncan's Spurs, Nowitzki's Mavs or Pierce's Celtics.

Just because a team is underachieving right now doesn't mean it will keep playing poorly all season. Our 5-on-5 crew takes a look at some potential sleepers.


1. Which is the No. 5 sleeper team in the NBA?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: If nothing else, the Knicks have made the New York papers fun to read. They've lost to four lottery teams at home and have been a certified train wreck. Yet for all the dysfunction and Carmelo Anthony's wounded ankle, thumb and ego, they're only two games out of the playoffs. If they can get Anthony back and Baron Davis in uniform, they should be able to crack the Top 8 in the East.


Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies and the Thunder were the darlings of the 2011 playoffs. The Thunder have picked up where they left off but injuries to Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur have set the Griz back. They've had to integrate new pieces and their offense has taken a big hit. That said, it's only a matter of time before they get it together.


Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Miami Heat. I'm not sure the Heat really qualify for this quiz, but I doubt they will have another month in which they lose a third of their games.

Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Memphis Grizzlies.


When Z-Bo went down, everyone wrote this team off. Those who did might have forgotten how good Rudy Gay is. Even if the Griz are depleted up front, they have excellent depth and high-level defenders, and they've won seven of their past 10 games. Meanwhile, Marc Gasol looks like he might have been underpaid.


Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Boston Celtics. They don't really have a good excuse as to why they didn't play well the first five weeks of the season other than maybe they're old and played horrible basketball. But still, the first month was a grind for everyone, and as the Celtics get healthy and start to hit their stride, all this talk of missing the playoffs will disappear and it'll be back to talking title chances if they're one of the top four Eastern teams.


2. Which is the No. 4 sleeper team in the NBA?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The 13-6 Pacers are one of the feel-good stories of the early season, so they certainly haven't slept on anyone. But when you consider that they've played only six of those games at home (where they're 5-1), their best days still might be ahead. If Roy Hibbert's balky ankle holds up and Danny Granger can play like he has over the past week, then the Pacers will hold the inside track to the East's No. 3 seed.


Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Cleveland Cavaliers. They have been reinvigorated with the arrival of Kyrie Irving. So far, they've looked great in their wins (only two were single-digit point differentials) and up-and-down in their losses; typical signs of growing pains for a team on the rise. The Cavs are currently tied for the eighth playoff spot. If the old guard continues to change, I see the Cavs holding this spot.


Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: San Antonio Spurs. The San Antonio Spurs have played one of the toughest schedules in the league and sustained an injury to their best player. Assuming all those teams in the Southwest Division don't beat each other up too much, the Spurs should be primed for a strong end of the season when Manu returns to one of the deepest San Antonio teams in recent memory.


Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Boston Celtics. We knew the Celtics weren't built for this season. Given the age of their three great players not named Rajon Rondo, they just might not be built for any season anymore. But there is no other team in the league with as many Hall of Famers, and there isn't a squad in the league that Boston, if it plays at its best, couldn't beat in a seven-game series.


Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Memphis Grizzlies. They were dealt a bad blow in losing Randolph for an extended period of time with a knee injury, but still, they've been able to keep their head above water. Remember, this was a team many expected to contend for the West and they definitely have the pieces. They've just got to get them back and playing.


3. Which is the No. 3 sleeper team in the NBA?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: San Antonio Spurs. If the playoffs were to start today, the Spurs would be facing a tee time. They are ranked 23rd defensively, have been without Manu Ginobili since Jan. 2 and still have their rodeo trip in front of them. But if they can tread water on the road until Manu gets back, the Spurs should experience a bounce. They've rationed starter minutes and have been developing their supporting cast. Does anyone really believe there are eight better teams in the West?


Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Boston Celtics. The first team no other NBA team will count out. With all the hoopla around declaring this team done, the fact that they haven't been healthy all season slides under the radar. They've currently won four of their past five games and are scheduled to get Rajon Rondo back any day. Of course, once they get healthy, there's no chance they'll stay that way.


Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Boston Celtics. Yes, the Celtics are old, thin and no longer one of the most feared defenses in the NBA. But their ugly midmonth losing streak came at the hands of solid playoff teams, and Paul Pierce is finally looking like his old, err, young self. The Celtics aren't a sleeping contender, but they are better than they've played.


Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: San Antonio. The Spurs had the best record in the West last season and have managed to tread water despite losing Ginobili. That may be a blessing in disguise, however, as it is forcing the inexperienced players on the roster (Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal) into larger roles. The big three can't do it on their own anymore, so coach Gregg Popovich will need these guys come playoff time. And without any truly scary teams across the Mississippi aside from the Thunder, it would shock nobody if the Spurs crawled their way back to the conference finals.


Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Los Angeles Lakers. There are problems. Big ones. The Lakers can't score consistently, have to rely way too much on No. 24 while at the same time No. 24 relies too much on himself. Mike Brown has himself a little bit of a mess, but still, these are the Lakers. They have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. This is a good team. It was an ugly first five weeks, but it's way too premature to write them off.


4. Which is the No. 2 sleeper team in the NBA?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The Rockets have enough firepower to score on just about anyone, and now they've started to figure some stuff out defensively. They guard the perimeter, have stopped fouling and run back in transition. They haven't played the toughest schedule of late, but they're like an entirely different team than the one that came out of the gate 2-6 and will be a tough out if they can sustain the progress.


Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Los Angeles Lakers. The second team no other NBA team will count out. This team has shown so much championship mettle over the years, things are just bound to get better. Even with one of the toughest remaining schedules, I'll never count out the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol tandem. Besides, who knows who they'll add at the deadline?


Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Portland Trail Blazers. They have lost a bunch of close games and dropped some puzzlers to bad teams as they continue to integrate some new pieces into a new, faster style of play. This team could easily be 15-5 and will challenge for a top-three seed in the West.


Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Dallas. Former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said it best in 1995: "Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion." That year, he -- or, more accurately, Hakeem Olajuwon -- led Houston to its second straight title. The Rockets never had home-court advantage as they entered the playoffs as a 6-seed. So it was somewhat fitting that they won their final six games en route to the rings. Dirk isn't quite Hakeem, but after seeing what he did while carrying the Mavs to the 'ship last season, are you going to bet against him?


Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Portland Trail Blazers. For a second there, everyone wanted to put a crown on the Blazers' head as maybe the best team in the West. Then they lost five of seven, revealing big deficiencies. But there's no doubt this team has the pieces to legitimately push for the top of the West. It's not hard to picture a big month coming from Portland, during which the Blazers climb the standings quickly.


5. Which is the No. 1 sleeper team in the NBA?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Can the reigning champs be classified as a sleeper? Rarely do you hear anyone list the Mavericks among the title favorites, but despite a horrendous start, a carousel of new players and a hiatus by Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs find themselves in first place in their division. They're the NBA's fifth-ranked defense and we have to figure they'll be better than a league average offense by April. Look out.


Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Minnesota Timberwolves. This is a good team trapped in the toughest division in the NBA. Now with the Kevin Love contract situation settled, it's only a matter of time until Love, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams build chemistry and start winning consistently. They also have solid role players and a great coach.


Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak: Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies aren't exactly in hibernation after a seven-game win streak, but they are still wiping the sleep from their eyes and struggling against good teams. With Randolph yet to return, expect this team to fatten itself on wins like its namesake on spawning sockeye.


Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: The Lakers. Kobe isn't scoring 40 a night anymore, but that's for the best. Sure, Los Angeles still has a ton to figure out -- namely, how to get Andrew Bynum more than 12 shots per night -- but it can beat any other team in the West. The Thunder, who have lost four of their past five head-to-head matches with the Lakers, know that as well as anyone.


Royce Young, Daily Thunder: San Antonio Spurs. It kind of feels like the Spurs are intentionally hovering around .500. Like they're just trying to do just enough to stay in the race while also conserving themselves for a big push in March. They've been without Manu Ginobili for most of the season and have gotten some inconsistent play from their role players, but the Spurs are coming. They're like a racehorse waiting for the chance to get to the inside and make a move.